Classic Centenarian: Eva Zeisel's Timeless Tableware

Classic Centenarian: Eva Zeisel's Timeless Tableware

Anna Hoffman
Jan 2, 2012

The talented designer Eva Zeisel passed away on December 30. To help honor her memory, we're rerunning Anna's 2009 "Retrospect" column on Eva's work.

An important designer from Modernism through Post-Modernism to today, Eva Zeisel's work is both seminal and accessible, classic and contemporary.

Zeisel is the rare designer whose biography is as exciting as her body of work — let's start thinking about who could play her in the movie. Zeisel (image 1) was born Eva Stricker in Budapest in 1906 to a family of highly educated, assimilated Jews (her mother was among the first women to graduate from the University of Budapest). Zeisel went to art school to study painting, but ended up becoming a ceramicist. Soon, she was the first woman admitted to the potters' guild. Though she initially incorporated Hungarian folk designs in her work, by the late 1920s one can see the influence of the internationalist, geometric Bauhaus style (image 2). She even spent some time in Weimar Germany, near the original Bauhaus itself, as well as in Paris during the Jazz Age. In 1932, she moved to Soviet Moscow to join her brother who was living there, and got work designing ceramics for the Lomonosov Porcelain Factory, the state-controlled former Imperial Porcelain Factory.

Three years later, at age 28, Zeisel was appointed artistic director of the Soviet ceramics industry, but the next year she was accused of plotting Stalin's assassination. She was imprisoned for 16 months before a false confession somehow led to her release and deportation to Vienna, where she next had to escape the Nazis (it was 1938). She married her husband, Hans Zeisel, moved to New York, and has lived on the Upper West Side ever since. Once in New York, Zeisel's career continued to flourish. She joined the faculty at Pratt and began the ceramics department there, establishing pottery as an industrial medium rather than a craft. Less than 10 years later, she was the subject of the first one-woman show at the Museum of Modern Art. So in her first 40 years, she endured Stalinist prison — 12 months of which she spent in solitary confinement — fled the Nazis, and enjoyed the kind of career trajectory reserved for geniuses and wunderkinds. (Which kind of makes your life feel a little trivial, doesn't it? Or is that just me?)

Arguably, it is MoMA's attention that made Zeisel the household name she is today (well, some households). Started in 1929, MoMA was instantly an influential voice in contemporary design, led by Philip Johnson, the first curator of architecture and design. The museum embraced Modernism and played an important role in establishing it as the dominant style in American design. In 1939, for example, MoMA's Organic Design competition launched the careers of its winners, Charles Eames and Eero Saarinen. In 1942, Castleton China asked the museum to host another competition among ceramicists to design a new porcelain service. MoMA handpicked Eva Zeisel, whose design for Castleton was dubbed the Museum Service and was available through the MoMA store (images 3).

The Museum Service was a design perfectly calibrated to win MoMA's heart. Zeisel retained all the elements of a traditional china service, right down to the demitasse cups. Her forms are reduced to the simplest iterations of familiar tableware shapes while maintaining an exquisite elegance that would have appealed to the deep-pocketed customer base during an era when women still wore gloves to tea. It is still appealing today, delicate without being feminine or precious, simple but by no means boring.

While MoMA's Modernist mandate was to find designs that transcended style, that were timeless and forever, Zeisel's most popular tableware was designed with the opposite intention. In 1947, Red Wing Pottery commissioned Zeisel to design tableware that didn't have to last a long time, that could be somewhat trendy. The Town and Country service was vastly different from the Museum service — colorful, with rounded, biomorphic shapes (image 4) — though, like all her designs, both services display a sensitivity to material and an almost tactile sensuality. Ironically, this service has proved enduring as well: it is her best-selling service, and many people collect it today.

Much of Zeisel's other work is closer to Town and Country than to the Museum service, and she tended to work in an organic, playful, expressive aesthetic. Her Century service, which is now available at Crate & Barrel, is a nice synthesis of the different aspects of her design (image 5). The forms are organic, abstracted from nature, with the definite sense of ceramics as a handcraft — although of course the products are mass-produced — the dinner plates are not perfectly round, but slightly ovoid. The gravy boat looks as though it were styled from leaves. But the finished product is elegant and sleek, easily dressed up or down on a table.

Zeisel has had such a long and prolific career, it would be folly to try to discuss more than just a few of her designs here, so I've limited our focus to just a few designs over about a decade in the middle of the century. Zeisel has worked in nearly every medium and material, including furniture, textiles, and glassware. Regardless of what she is designing, the end result is always functional, comfortable to use, thoughtful, playful, occasionally elegant, occasionally casual, often both. Do any of you own Eva Zeisel designs? What are your favorites?

She'll be 103 on November 13th, and she is still designing. Don't forget to raise your teacup next Wednesday to her good health!

Interested in owning some of Zeisel's designs? You can find a lot of older patterns on ebay and other online collecting sites. For more recent designs and reproductions, try DWR, Crate and Barrel, Nambé (though they've discontinued her glassware), Royal Stafford, and Eva Zeisel Originals.

You should really watch Zeisel's too-brief TED lecture on "the playful search for beauty," which includes images of her work from the 1920s to today. You will fall in love with her.

Images: 1 Eva Zeisel with some of her recent rug designs for the Rug Company, via Apartment Therapy; 2 Earthenware inkwell designed for the Schramberg Majolica Factory in the Black Forest region of Germany (1929-30), now at the Metropolitan Museum of Art; 3 Museum service (1942-3) for Castleton China, with MoMA as middleman. When MoMA showed this work in 1946, it was in their first one-woman show ever, with Zeisel as the subject. From the Victoria and Albert Museum, London; 4 Town and Country salt and pepper shakers (1946), which Zeisel describes as a portrait of her daughter and herself, photo by PatrickD on flickr; 5 Classic Century service (1952), reissued by Crate and Barrel.

Eva Zeisel for The Rug Company Part 1
Eva Zeisel for The Rug Company Part 2
Classic Tableware: Eva Zeisel's Century Collection
Eva Zeisel Teakettle
Eva Zeisel's Coffee Table

Originally published 11.05.2009 - JL

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